Galway Kinnell's "Blackberry Eating"
Introduction and Text of Poem, "Blackberry Eating"
Galway Kinnell's "Blackberry Eating" is an American, or innovative, sonnet; it offers no rime-pattern, but it does present a shift from the octave to the sestet, a quality that makes it resemble the Italian sonnet more than the English.
(Please note: The incorrect spelling, "rhyme," was erroneously introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson. For my explanation for using only the correct form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")
Like the Italian sonnet also, Kinnell's American sonnet sections itself into two quatrains in the octave and two tercets in the sestet.
I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.
Reading of Kinnell's "Blackberry Eating"
First Quatrain: "I love to go out in late September"
The speaker begins by stating plainly that he loves "to go out in late September" and pick blackberries to eat. But he does not simply gather them up in a basket to take back into his house; he eats them right from the stalks "for breakfast." His attraction to nature allows him to describe the blackberry patch quite vividly.
The speaker stands surrounded by "fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries." The adjective "icy" is questionable. It is only late September, and it is not likely that the berries could be so cold as to be called "icy." Perhaps, the dew has cooled them somewhat, but icy seems a questionable exaggeration.
Another definition of "icy" is unfriendly, but the speaker certainly does not feel that these alluring, inviting pieces of fruit are unfriendly. (Sometimes the reader has to allow for the possibility that the poet has simply made a mistake that should have been revised.)
Second Quatrain: "they earn for knowing the black art"
In the final line of the first quatrain, the speaker had begun the thought that the stalks of the blackberry are being penalized by having to support a spiny texture; their rough state is the "penalty" for "knowing the black art of blackberry-making."
As the speaker's attraction shows, the "penalty" has little effect. He is willing to endure the "prickly" stalks in order to get to the luscious fruit. The speaker, still standing among the blackberries, begins eating the berries directly from the stalks.
Some of the berries just fall into his mouth because they are so ripe and ready to leave the stalks. He asserts, "the ripest berries / fall almost unbidden to my tongue."
First Tercet: "as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words"
At this point, the speaker shifts from the blackberries to words. He finds that just as those ripe blackberries fall easily and deliciously onto his tongue, so do certain words sometimes.
He gives examples of those "certain peculiar words / like strengths or squinched"; he describes them as "many-lettered, one syllabled lumps" which resemble the composition of the blackberry that is a clump of small drupelets.
Second Tercet: "which I squeeze, squelch open, and splurge well"
When such a word as "strengths" or "squinched" falls into his mouth onto his tongue, he repeats it, mouths it, plays with it on his tongue over and over again to see what it feels like, what it tastes like, and of course, he listens to the sounds it will produce.
As he does with the words, so he dramatizes his "blackberry-eating in late September"—the words and berries, "which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well / in the silent, startled, icy, black language." The mystery of language and mystery of blackberry-eating become fused as he muses over the existence of both.
Despite the distraction of the "icy" adjective opening the poem, its drama is fulfilled gloriously, giving the reader the delightful comparison of enjoying words as one would enjoy eating the black fruit in late September.
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© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes